THE KEY TO THE WORLD’S TREASURES. “Russian Science,” Local Knowledge, and the Civilizing Mission on the Siberian Steppe

Sometime in 1894, Abai Kunanbaev (1845-1904), a Middle Horde Kazak of distinguished ancestry educated in both an Islamic medresse and Russian schools, penned the following words of admonition to his fellow Kazaks: “Russian knowledge and culture are the keys to the world’s treasures. Whoever has these keys will gain everything else without particular effort.”1 Abai was not alone among the Kazaks of the Siberian steppe (Akmolinsk and Semipalatinsk provinces) in propagandizing the value of Russian education. In the context of the Russian Empire’s recent, seemingly irreversible conquest of the steppe, this seemed a sensible adaptation to changing realities. With the benefit of hindsight, it also appears, on the surface, to reflect absolute surrender to the modernizing impulses of an encroaching empire, acceptance of its material superiority, and the abdication of the value of nonmetropolitan knowledge practices. A closer look at the intellectual life of the Siberian steppe at the fin-de-siecle, however, presents a more complicated picture, one in which Kazak intellectuals accepted the civilizing assumptions of some of their tsarist interlocutors while using their knowledge of local conditions to craft arguments about how these visions ought to be implemented. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, though, their space to craft such arguments, and their hope of seeing them come to fruition, was on the wane.

More than four decades after Ronald Robinson’s influential thesis, it has become a truism to suggest that the success or failure of empires depends to a significant degree on their ability to create incentives for local cooperation, outside of the dominant nationality group.2 These incentives go beyond the materiality of salary, status, and rank. They extend to the creation of intellectual and ideological common ground—a sense that imperial officials and their colonial subjects, rulers and ruled, participate in the same project for similar reasons. On the Siberian steppe, science and knowledge as mediated through metropolitan institutions and language functioned, briefly, as such a common ground. It appeared in a smattering of colonial schools, local learned societies (statistical committees and subdivisions of IRGO—institutions involved with what would later be called regional study or kraevedenie), and an official bilingual newspaper, the Kirgizskaia stepnaia gazeta (hereafter KSG).3 In all of these arenas, a “civilizing” message expressed in scientistic language, emphasizing the rationality of European science and its potential to improve the world, both constructed Kazak backwardness and offered Kazaks an instrument by which—on those terms—to improve themselves.4

The administrative, social, and economic context in which this common ground formed was changing rapidly. Experiments with peasant colonization continued throughout the 1880s; by the mid-1890s, with the formation of a Resettlement Administration and the appearance of thousands of irregular colonists (samovol’tsy) fleeing the famine of 1891-1892, it had decidedly hit a new phase, if well short of its peak. More than two decades after its initial two-year term, the Provisional Statute was finally replaced in 1891 by a Steppe Statute (not implemented until 1893). This statute, while drawing Kazaks more closely into the bureaucratic structure of the Russian Empire, also enabled colonization by declaring that surpluses of Kazak land, as state property, were subject to seizure for other purposes.

Before Kazak observers’ very eyes, the steppe was changing. Yet the ways in which it might change remained contingent and contested, with Kazak intermediaries and tsarist administrators alike expressing a range of views. Common ground formed on the basis of a shared premise among Kazak intermediaries and “civilizing” tsarist administrators that a civilizing mission was desirable and feasible, that the steppe and its population both required improvement and could be improved through the action of imperial institutions. This very premise excluded numerous voices, both Kazak and Russian. Among the civilizers, it seemed likely that the steppe’s future would involve Kazaks settling on the land. The appearance of colonization on the political agenda, the actual appearance of colonists on the steppe, and the continuing association of pas- toralism and backwardness all pointed in this direction. Yet even as many official observers wrote in favor of sedentarism and a move from pastoralism to agriculture, and many Kazaks agreed with them, significant doubts rooted in perceptions of the steppe environment also appeared about the feasibility of such a transformation.

In this context, local knowledge, some of it collected and developed by Russian scholars (amateurs, in the vast majority of cases), appeared both as a means of seeking the adaptations that would permit a move to agriculture and as a defense of pastoralism. If Russian knowledge was the key to the world’s treasures, knowledge of the local environment was vital to debates about what lay inside the chest.

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